The General Operating budget accounts for almost 60% of total expenditure. In 2018 that ranged from $360 million at the smallest Top 25 school to over $2.2 billion at the largest. Almost three-quarters is spent on staff.

Expenditures are less prone to inter-provincial and inter-university differences and complexities. However, universities do differ for a variety of reasons – size, location, academic program, age and physical condition, and other factors. Those differences may be reflected in resource allocations.

The GO budget is allocated across seven functions – Non-Credit Instruction (mainly extension programs), the Library, Computing & Communications, Central Administration, Student Services, Physical Plant, and Instruction & Non-Sponsored Research – where the teaching happens. (There are actually eight units, but Administration & Academic Support and External Relations have been re-combined in this analysis as Central Administration, reflecting the structure in earlier years.) A description of each function can be found in the latest version of the reporting guidelines HERE. The CAUBO guidelines for each the General Operating functions can be seen HERE.

Please Note: Internal Sales and Cost Recoveries have been removed from G.O. expenditure for the purposes of this analysis because they are used to differing degrees among some universities, and not at all at others. This undermines comparability. See explanation HERE.

Of course, the years since 2001 have been impacted by societal, technological and economic change that imposed new cost pressures. But some had the reverse affect. Even in 2001, many tasks were performed by expensive armies of administrative staff, but have since been automated. For all the fiscal challenges of change, there were significant savings as well.

There are plausible explanations for some movement. The advent of new technologies has triggered a reduction in the cost of university libraries, but had the reverse affect in the computing area. The issue of deferred maintenance covering physical infrastructure is well-publicized, and the accelerating cost of maintaining aging plant might be expected to show in the Physical Plant area. The range of Student Services has expanded, and increased enrollment has placed higher demands on them, although most of this cost has been covered by fast-rising compulsory non-academic fees levied on all students.

However, while all the functions are impacted by inflation and technological change, some are more impacted by enrollment than others. Costs in Instruction and Student Services are much more enrollment-sensitive than costs in the other functions.

Against that backdrop we see the following change in resource allocations (averages for the Top 25):






The Rankings Tables go beyond the average percentages for the Top 25, and provide insight into the Resource Allocation levels at each university.

Even allowing for the fact that various complexities can impact each university differently, the Rankings Tables reveal some disparities that are difficult to understand:

  • The Library consumes 2.3% of General Operating funds at the lowest Top 25 university (Sherbrooke), 16.5% at the highest (Simon Fraser).
  • The Physical Plant area costs 6.7% of the GO budget at the lowest school (Ottawa), but 15.7% at the highest (Alberta).
  • Student Services account for 3.6% of the budget at the lowest school (Québec a Montréal), 15.7% at the highest (Ryerson).
  • Central Administration absorbs 9.1% of GO funds at the lowest school (Dalhousie), 16.5% at the highest (Waterloo).

In this “zero sum game”, resource allocations to the other functions ultimately impact on the Instruction area, yielding the following outcomes:

  • The highest Top 25 university delivers 67.4% of funding to the teaching area (Laval), the lowest just 50.7% (Simon Fraser).

Some of the consequences of seemingly-small percentage variances are shocking; those numbers (shown in the Rankings Tables) quantify the actual dollar impact of variances compared with the school’s past and its peer group. The impact numbers illustrate the importance of maintaining high levels of vigilance, and not dismissing small percentage variances and movements because they seem inconsequential.


Every university has inefficiency-skeletons in its closet, some more than others. They are not the same at every school but they have the same affect. They deflect funding away from core purpose, and increase the pressure for student fee hikes and classroom cutbacks.

Within those closets rests the clear opportunity for a more prudent and surgical – and less harmful – solution than increased student fees and classroom cuts.


The Rankings